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Surf lifesaving

A way of life in the surf

Photo of lifesavers at Wanda beach, Cronulla, 1964 or 1965

Lifesavers at Wanda Beach, Cronulla, 1964 or 1965. Photographer Jeff Carter. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

No examination of the Australian identity would be complete without looking at the surf. Over the last two centuries the Australian bush has been central to the way Australians have viewed themselves. Yet it is images of rolling waves, white beaches, surfers and bronzed Aussies' that now have most resonance and these are, without doubt, very much at the heart of how we see ourselves.

The vast majority of Australia's population lives in cities and towns on, or near, the coast. The beach is - and always has been - a place that millions of Australians escape to, where they can relax and play.

Surfing and the beach do not discriminate. They bring together a diverse range of people. Unlike other places around the world that have privately owned beaches, in Australia the beach is a public place. John Pilger, in his book A Secret Country , says, 'there are no proprietorial rights on an Australian beach' and there is 'a shared assumption of tolerance for each other.'

Surf lifesaving

Australia's first official surf lifesaving club - the first in the world - was founded at Bondi Beach, in Sydney, in 1906. There was little need for surf lifesaving clubs much before this time as it was illegal to swim in the surf during daylight hours before 1902. It was seen as immoral, and men and women could only 'bathe' in the early morning and late evening, and never at the same time!

In September 1902 at Manly Beach, William Gocher openly defied the law and entered the water at midday. Despite being arrested, no charges were laid. From then on, the sport of 'surf bathing' quickly grew.

As the sport became more popular, the dangers of the surf became apparent. It was then that groups of experienced surfers began to establish surf life saving clubs to help protect the less proficient swimmers from the dangers of the ocean.

It is a surprising fact that surf lifesaving clubs were formed before surfboard riding was introduced to Australia.

Photo of surfing at Manly Beach, New South Wales, 1938-46

Surfing at Manly Beach, New South Wales, 1938-46. Photographer Ray Leighton. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

It was not until the summer of 1915 that Duke Kahanamoku landed in Sydney from Hawaii. At Freshwater Beach he rode a board - made out of local timber - and amazed the crowd with his display. He then took a woman out with him to ride tandem. She was Elizabeth Latham and she became Australia's first surfboard rider.

The darker side of the surf

Sunday 6 February 1938 - 'Black Sunday' - was a shocking reminder of the value of our surf life savers. A series of freak waves hit Bondi Beach and hundreds of people were swept out to sea. Many of the life savers had to be saved themselves, as desperate swimmers grabbed onto rescue lines and dragged them underwater. But thanks to the dedication and bravery of the surf lifesavers 300 people were eventually rescued.

A united voice

The New South Wales Surf Bathing Association was founded in 1907. The association was seen as vital for the growing number of surf lifesaving clubs to have a 'common voice' in their efforts to raise funds and obtain assistance from local councils and the state government.

The name of the association was later changed to the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia, which came to represent surf clubs nationwide. In 1991 the association changed again to Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA), its present name.

Since its formation SLSA has been helping to protect and save the lives of the nation's beach-goers, with over 440,000 people rescued. Today SLSA is Australia's largest volunteer water safety organisation.

Australian surf lifesavers have rescued more than 500,000 people in the 80 years since records have been kept, with the number of rescues each season in recent years fluctuating between 8,000 and 10,000.

An independent economic study conducted for Surf Life Saving Australia in 2005 concluded that if not for the presence of surf lifesavers, 485 people would drown each year and 313 would be permanently incapacitated as a result of accidents in the surf.

Growing up with lifesaving


Photo of the Surf Life Saving Club Nippers workshop, 2002

SLSC: Surf Life Saving Club, Nippers workshop on the beach, January 2002: Photographer Suzon Fuks. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

There are now over 40,000 junior surf lifesavers (Nippers) in Australia. Children can join the program from as young as seven years old. The aim of the junior program is to give children surf awareness and surf safety skills so that they can keep themselves safe at the beach.

They can also participate in board paddling, surfing, swimming, running, wading and other fun activities and games. These are the skills that allow children to compete in club, regional and state surf lifesaving carnivals.


After 'Nippers', the Juniors program (aged 13 - 15) sees children learn various rescue techniques and gain surf rescue certificates. This is a pathway to getting their 'Bronze Medallion', participating in beach patrols and developing into patrolling lifesavers.

The spirit of competition - Ironmen & Ironwomen

As well as the vital community service Australia's life savers perform, they also engage in regular competition to maintain their skills and fitness.

These competitions are known as surf carnivals. They showcase an array of surf life saving disciplines and involve three main areas of competition - beach events, surf swimming events and surf craft events.

The pinnacle of surf lifesaving competition is the LightIce Australian Surf Life Saving Championships. Held over four days on the Gold Coast in Queensland, the championships attract more than 7,500 competitors ranging from veteran greats of the surf to young champions in the making, as well as established stars like Olympic kayaking gold medallist Clint Robinson.

Competitors from all of Australia's surf clubs take part in the championships, along with top overseas lifesavers from other countries including the USA, UK, South Africa, Japan and New Zealand. Only the Olympic Games boast more competitors! The championships use more than 500 officials and are nationally televised.

Useful links

Surf lifesaving


Last updated: 26th February 2016
Creators: ACME, et al.